by George H. Quester
After years of horrific evils, Harry S. Truman had a chance to create a safer, non-nuclear world. Yet, moral daring was no more likely to be found in 1946 than it was in the 1930s. The history of American foreign policy has largely consisted of doing too little or too wrong until disaster struck.
Complex and difficult to summarize, yet lucid and well organized, Nuclear Monopoly explores the possibility of a U.S. led takeover of the Soviet Union after World War II employing the threat of nuclear weapons. Quester also examines a potential Soviet monopoly in nuclear weapons in the late 1940s and a takeover of the United States.
The situation: Between 1945 and 1949 the United States was the only country with nuclear weapons. Rather than seeing themselves as cowards for not liberating the people of China, Russia, and Eastern Europe, Americans of the time chose to see themselves as a loving, trustworthy people who, though possessing the world’s most powerful technology, chose not to engage in preventative war or at least force Stalin into concessions.
Truman could have prevented the millions of lives and trillions of dollars lost during the “cold” war. He could have prevented the world we live in, where most individuals in the industrialized world are minutes away from incineration or severe illness.
American opinion polls in the 1940s suggest ambivalent and often kindly attitudes toward the Soviet Union despite the atrocities committed by Joseph Stalin. If Stalin differed from Hitler, Tojo, and Mussolini, it was primarily a matter of Stalin being more clever, more cautious, and better at noble sounding ideology.
Quester summarizes three views popular in international policies: "Marxist," "neo-realist," and "liberal." The Marxism blames imperialism. Neo-realism claims every country tries to maximize its own power or the power of certain groups controlling the country. Liberalism argues that the U.S. is a decent or good country.
Against massive evidence to the contrary—Stalin’s invasions and agitations—the Marxism blames the cold war on the United States. The neo-realist fails to distinguish truth from untruth and blames all competing sides.
Most individuals think the world is safest if it has mutually assured destruction or no one has nuclear weapons. Quester argues for another alternative. The world would be safer if the United States and no one else ever had nuclear weapons.
Quester argues that a U.S. liberation of the world in 1946, 47, or 48 would have cost somewhere between almost nothing and several hundred repetitions of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in the Soviet Union, plus many, many conventional warfare deaths in Western Europe. The option chosen cost at least 50 million deaths, trillions of dollars, enormous opportunity losses, and huge costs in the future. The U.S. now has limited ability and willingness to protect individuals around the globe. It can police when interference by other nuclear powers is low or when politicians and defense contractors see a profitable opportunity. Since 1945, humans produced more than 40,000 nuclear warheads and control of those weapons is abysmal.
Any stoppage of nuclear proliferation would have required vigilance. The U.S. would have had to keep nuclear secrets, control uranium deposits, control coal ash, and punish any nation that attempted to develop a nuclear industry.
Rome and Britain, Quester points out, used military superiority to maintain the peace in previous centuries. The United States should have at least considered he same in the 1940s. Quester points to a Polish general who in 1933 wanted a French-Polish war against Hitler before Germany could rearm. The world may have become a better place if others had agreed with Marshall Pilsudski. Or if Anthony Eden, or someone else, had assassinated Hitler.
Yet in the United States there is a taboo against preventative war. No matter how evil a tyrant is, it is assumed to be immoral to remove him until he attacks us or our allies. Never mind that the tyrant was never elected, murders his own citizens, and murders the citizens of other nations. To make sure preventative warfare does not enter general discussion it is also alleged it would fail. It is unthinkingly assumed that killing Hitler would have led to someone as bad or worse. Never mind that it is difficult to find examples of individuals worse than Hitler and that the legitimate threat of preventative actions by the world’s democracies might help keep tyrants in check.
Quester goes through the counter arguments against preventative war: We had only a handful of disassembled bombs lying around New Mexico until the Soviets started the arms race in the 1950s. The Soviets would not have surrendered to bombing. Unlike hydrogen bombs, fission bombs did not have enough energy. The Soviets could have hid important targets. Western Europe would have been overrun by Soviet conventional forces. Soviet air defenses would have shot down too many bombers. Americans would have been excoriated by world opinion. The Russians might have had the bomb, and Truman did not know about it. Americans thought the Soviets lacked the expertise and resources to ever build the bomb. Civilians and military leaders would have opposed a preventative war. The Soviets were our “allies.”
Quester not quite confidently replies we could have easily built more bombs. In fact, if the Soviets had known of the sorry state of our military nuclear preparedness, they might have been even more aggressive during the late 1940s. Given the energy of fission bombs, they will cause countries to surrender. Fission bombs may be baby bombs compared to hydrogen bombs, but they are deadly enough. Stalin dreaded the thought of nuclear attack. Intelligence agencies could have located Soviet nuclear facilities. The Soviet ability to overrun Europe could have been prevented with a conventional build up. Single aircraft could have easily avoided the Soviet air defenses of that era. Public opinion could have been mobilized by an activist president. The Soviets were busy brutalizing their own people and the people of Eastern Europe and Asia.
Quester explores other alternatives--the British developing nuclear weapons first and a Soviet sneak attack in 1949. In 1949 American nuclear materials rested at two sites in New Mexico. A Russian sneak attack with Tu-4 bombers could have paved the way for Soviet domination of the world.
Among the science fiction crowd, a popular theme argues planets with intelligent life have difficulty surviving the invention of nuclear weapons. But situations of mutually assured destruction may not be the norm. The first group on other planets to develop nuclear weapons may not allow others to develop them. If the Soviet Union had nuclear weapons in 1946, and no one else was close to having them, the world might be a very different place. Stalin could have used nuclear weapons to win his “class struggle.” Or imagine what the world would be like if the United States sank into the ocean in 1946.
Nuclear Monopoly is mostly a well-reasoned exploration of alternatives, including some that many consider intuitively “too offensive.” The prose is deft. Surprisingly, Quester does not seem to support a nuclear monopoly though his arguments may. Recommended.
—Book review article by J.T.
Fournier, last updated July 24, 2009